Hacking in a winter wonderland

It’s odd that only a smidgen over a week ago I was in Mexico with the sun beating down on me as I worked on the balcony, and now I’m in Boston in a snowstorm. I took the Acela train from New York yesterday afternoon, with a little trepidation. After all, I’m familiar with the British railway system where autumn leaves cause serious delays and a snowstorm shuts the network down completely.

Well, I had no cause for concern. The Boston train departed on time and trundled up into Connecticut. We paused for a while at Old Saybrook (once home of Katharine Hepburn) and the guard explained over the tannoy that we’d be waiting “while the engineer went to the rear power-car to adjust… to adjust… to adjust whatever needs adjusting in the rear power-car.” That done, we traversed Rhode Island and entered Massachusetts. We eventually arrived in Boston about 20 minutes late, which was exceptionally good given the harsh weather conditions.

There isn’t a taxi rank at Boston South station so I waited outside in the driving snow for a cab. A homeless guy was flagging down cabs for the people waiting. I gave him $20, because the weather was so terrible. The journey to the hotel proceeded with minimal traction and often actually sideways.

I’m loving Boston. The snow and Christmas decorations give it a charming ambience, and the children snowball-fighting in the street while couples walk by holding gloved hands make it seem like something out of a Hollywood Christmas movie.

Mexican wave

On the road again. No, not really. International travel these days rarely involves roads. Runways, yes; stumpy driverless trains between airport terminals, of course; miles of travelators, naturally. But out of the 10590 miles I travelled on the 11th December I’d estimate about 0.2% was by road.

When people say “I’ve had a long day” they generally don’t mean it literally. My December 11th lasted 38 hours.

Mexican passport control is refreshingly friendly compared to the frosty American version. The immigration officer at Cancun identified my passport as British and greeted me with, “I like Manchester United.” He flipped through the little book looking in vain for somewhere to put his stamp, before finally settling for the “Observations” page at the back. “You have busy passport,” he told me as he handed it to me, adding as an afterthought: “I like Mr Bean.”

My accommodation here in the Yucatán is palatial and wonderful. I have finally eaten authentic huevos rancheros, which was splendid. It fills the same role as the full-English fry-up (i.e. a protein fix), but with Mexican spice and flair. It was served with refried beans. I’ve heard a lot of things – mostly negative – about refried beans, and was perfectly prepared to believe them when I saw the pyramid of viscous grey sludge squatting on the edge of the plate. Appearances were deceptive, fortunately: they tasted divine and gave me the gaseous gift that keeps on giving for most of the afternoon. I thoroughly approve.

The Wifi Nazi

That’s a reference to Seinfeld, incidentally. No Wifi for you! I’m not actually accusing the Singaporean authorities of attempting mass extermination of wireless network customers.

Yesterday I was in Singapore airport’s amazing new Terminal 3. As departure lounges go, it’s simply the most comfortable, spacious, organised and luxurious example that I have ever seen. If any of my readers are planning to do a Tom Hanks and spend ten years living in an airport, I recommend T3 at Changi. Anyway, I wanted some wireless, so I cranked my laptop up and was heartened by the promise of “Free WIFI”.

Unlike Hong Kong Airport’s free wireless, Singapore expects you to register and create a user account. Fair enough. However, some bright spark has written the system such that you do not choose your password when you create the account. And neither will it tell you your password when you’ve completed registration. It will only send the password to you by text message.

Now, that’s great. Except my mobile phone’s battery was completely dead because when I was packing for Singapore I’d only just returned to Hong Kong from three weeks on the road, I was hellishly jetlagged, and I completely failed to move my charger from the big suitcase to the small suitcase.

But wait! Here in the small print there is a link: “I do not have a mobile phone”.

I clicked on it. A window popped out. “If you do not have a mobile phone, you can still use the airport’s free wireless. Simply call ….”, and then a phone number. Oh, right. How?

In truth, I am being churlish because I thought this was all so silly and unnecessary. Why not just give me the password on the screen? Or log me in automatically so I can retrieve the password by e-mail? It can’t be for identification. I carry a prepaid SIM that I use for such things anyway, so that I can provide a mobile phone number in total anonymity should I need to.
Actually, the Internet facilities in T3 are extraordinarily good – there are free, unrestricted (by Singaporean standards) Internet machines all over the terminal, and several desks where you can get AC power and cabled Internet for free, without registration, providing you’re carrying your own patch cable.

In fairness, it’s probably good assumption that any passenger with a laptop will have a mobile phone as well. However, good user interfaces should always provide a second option for such things, because forgetful doofuses like me do exist.

Sea food

On Wednesday afternoon I had a meeting with some clients in Macau. The plan was to eat some tasty vittles and swill down some vinho verde and a bottle of port at Clube Militar after the meeting, so I wanted a return ticket on a fairly late ferry. The boats were unusually full, and the only seats available on the 11:30pm ferry were in “first class”. It’s not much more expensive than the ordinary tickets, though, and I’ve never tried TurboJet’s first class, so I handed over the money.

Well, dinner at Clube Militar was great (although it is a bit annoying that the restaurant is open to all-comers but the bar is members-only), we demolished insane amounts of port, and then weaved back to the ferry terminal. Infer what you will about saunas, casinos etc, but I’m afraid in reality absolutely nothing seedy or decadent took place at all. It was, after all, a work night.

Ensconced in first class on the boat, I was surprised to note that, even late at night, they serve food; not half as surprised as I was when I inspected the food, though. Here it is:

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Because the picture is not 100% clear, I will explain what you are looking at. This is a bowl of tuna mayonnaise, served on a generous bed of lumps of apricot; and a blueberry has been impertinently wedged into the top. In other words, it is random food.

The next day, I cheerfully related this tale to a friend, and to my chagrin she immediately topped it. Apparently in a restaurant in Tian Ta (somewhere in the mainland), she and her American friends had rejected some sub-standard dishes and asked for something decent to be brought to them. It would appear that the Chinese chefs had retired to the kitchen to derive logically from first principles a dish that would please young Americans. They were served with: fried chicken, drenched in ketchup, liberally smothered in coconut and topped with some cake sprinkles. Not only is this definitive “random food” but even better – there is a picture!

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Apparently it all got eaten.

And now, a word from our sponsors

I am in the process of reviewing my opinions about the localisation of Internet advertising. Time was, I used to feel hard-done-by in Hong Kong, because so many web-based special offers were “limited to residents of the USA”. Not that I was really keen on pyramid-schemes or matrix-marketing just for a free iPod (or iPhone, now), but I’m touchy about these things: if I don’t take part I prefer it to be because I choose not to, rather than because I am forbidden from doing so; it makes a difference to me.

But now I see what the Americans have to put up with in return for unconstrained access to all the silly special offers. I’m writing this from Washington DC, and all the web 2.0 sites that I frequent are absolutely smeared with commercials that I never see in Hong Kong. Facebook is covered in flyers and sponsored adverts. I used to read Facebook comments from users complaining about all the advertising, but because we never see those ads in Hong Kong, I couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. And YouTube keeps inserting interstitial ads into the middle of its videos, which is damnably annoying. All this, just because I suddenly have a USA IP address.

We are very fortunate that there is little location-based advertising on English language web sites in HK. Long may this state of affairs continue. Hurrah for localised adverts, as long as I don’t have to see them!

(To forestall comments, yes I have tried AdBlock for FireFox; it works perfectly but it slows the browser down an unacceptable amount so I won’t use it.)

Land of hope and *what*…?

I don’t make journeys back to England lightly these days. It is a miserable place: freezing cold, foggy, traffic jams as far as the eye can see, and Vicky Pollards crowding the shopping malls. If it weren’t for my delight at being reunited with my family (and their various cats), I’d already have returned to Heathrow and flown somewhere warm and Asian for Christmas.

My flight over from HK wasn’t as bad as I feared. Cathay Pacific’s cabin crew are fine human beings, and when one of them saw my discomfort at being crammed into a tiny seat next to a fat mainlander who was continually elbowing me, she whisked me away during the taxi (to the envious stares of the other passengers) to a vacant exit row seat. Bliss. I had to endure a lone and overwhelmed father travelling with three small boys between the ages of three and seven, but even their continuous running, jumping and yelling didn’t spoil the comfort of the six feet of legroom by the 747’s overwing exit.

So. England. Why’s nobody in this bloody country got broadband Internet? I’m on sodding 56Kb/s dial-up for the first time since I was last in England. Is there anything so primitive as metered-by-the-minute Internet access? Why did the hire-car company think I’d be happy with a Hyundai Getz? Why is that bloody Slade Christmas song always on the radio? Why does it cost more per hour to park in Reading Station’s multistorey than it does to park under the Cheung Kong Centre?

On the positive side, the bacon sandwiches are better than anywhere else in the entire world.

Right. Time to go and procure gifts. Then maybe I will start drinking.

A wing and a prayer

HK’s newest airline made its maiden flight today, 24 hours later than planned. Oasis Hong Kong airways is worth watching. It’s the first modern budget longhaul carrier, trying to use all the hard lessons learnt by EasyJet, RyanAir etc to pick up where Freddie Laker left off, and make a success of it. They’re in with a fighting chance; the mastermind behind Oasis is Steve Miller the creator of DragonAir – and they have been a significant success story. Oasis is also of personal interest to me, because it could halve the cost of my trips back to the UK, providing I don’t mind the comparatively tiny inconvenience of landing at Gatwick rather than Heathrow.

I’m still curious about Oasis’ claim that it is run on “biblical principles” – the President is a Reverend, and so’s his wife, although they seem to have deserted the ministry in favour of making pots of money developing property. What biblical principles could possibly apply to running an airline? On Saudi Arabian flights, as the captain does his pre-flight introductions, practically every sentence is terminated by “inshallah” – “God willing”. That kind of thing doesn’t inspire confidence: “After takeoff, we will turn right, God willing, and climb to 35,000 feet, God willing. We will arrive in Damascus at five-thirty, God willing.” I’m hoping that Oasis are taking a more proactive approach to the successful completion of their flights.

The delay itself was very interesting. They got the plane all loaded up and ready to depart yesterday – lots of tearful farewells, champagne, interviews and journalists, and then at the very last minute, the Russians revoked Oasis’ fly-through permissions for their air space. The passengers sat on the plane for over five hours while negotiations went ahead, but in the end the flight had to be cancelled. No official reason for the retraction (and subsequent re-granting late last night) of these permissions has been given, but I suspect someone didn’t get bribed enough (or at all). This is Russia we’re talking about, after all. Conspiracy theorists are suggesting that British Airways or Cathay Pacific persuaded their respective governments to request that the Russian government sabotage Oasis’ flight, but that seems unlikely. The Hong Kong government doesn’t have that kind of clout, and the UK’s paltry influence in Moscow would hardly be wasted on something so private-sector as this.

In any case, the problem seems to have gone away. I went airside and watched today’s departure, which took place smoothly and bang on time.

Having recently received the prices for my Christmas flights to the UK on Cathay, BA, Virgin, Qantas, and even one-stopping on Singapore Airlines, I suspect that a round-trip on Oasis may be looming in my immediate future. After today, I’m quite looking forward to it.